Getting a “new perspective” on something tends to mean you should see things from a different point of view other than your own. Or perhaps approaching something from a different angle, or take on something with an improved or refreshed mindset.
Superliminal, however, sees that as both mantra and instruction.
A new take on first person puzzle games, in the wake of greats like Portal and The Witness, Superliminal offers something new that may have been dabbled on in some games, but never has been fleshed out like this.
Cryptic enough for you? Good. Because if I’ve had to have my perception of what’s real turned upside down and my grey matter threatening to vacate my brain-case on several occasions, then I want to at least confuse you and pique your interest at the same time.
So, what is Superliminal* and why should you invest in this beautifully short yet mind-blowing puzzler? Let’s find out, shall we, as we do an Inception in the world of dreams and logic puzzles…
*also, brownie points if you immediately thought of the Simpsons’ “Yvan Eht Nioj” episode when you heard that word. I know I did.
Minefield of Dreams
There isn’t really a story to Superliminal, and what little there is I don’t really want to spoil. What I can tell you, though, is that it’s based in the land of sleep.
That is, you are part of a dream therapy study, headed up by a Dr. Pierce. The experience starts off relatively easy, with you subjected to a series of trials in rooms that wouldn’t be out of place in 2017’s Prey reboot. These simple logistical puzzles (that we’ll come into) start to shape an experience akin to Portal, in that you have to work these chambers out to continue.
That is until something goes a bit wonky, and we find ourselves trapped in what appears to be a reoccurring nightmare of a hotel room… or is it? Well, yes and no, as Superliminal enters that Inception territory of dreams within dreams as events start taking weirder turns.
Thankfully, you’re guided through these dreamscapes by Dr. Pierce, who’s doing a good cop/bad cop with an overseeing program that doesn’t sound too far removed from Aperture Science’s rogue AI, GLaDOS. The cold and emotionless computer against Pierce’s optimism plays an amusing part as you navigate the increasingly weirder and convoluted corridors that Superliminal offers.
And that’s not exagerration, either. Things do indeed get rather weird…
From A Certain Point Of View
Now, the whole point of being a critic is to try and explain to you, dear reader, what the core concept of a game is. This is to either “sell” the product to you, or heed you off of buying a potential dumpster fire. Normally, that’s pretty easy. Wreckfest, for example, is banger racing: cars go fast, try not to crash into things.
Yet with Superliminal, I may struggle. Not because I didn’t get the game, far from it. It’s just that it’s such an incredible, yet completely mind-bending, concept that it’s hard to put into words.
The perspective analogy I made at the start wasn’t hyperbole, it’s the main gameplay mechanic. You find this out in your first test chamber, as you see a bunch of chess pawns on a table. Pick one up and hold it above you… then drop it.
In an ordinary game, this would merely drop the object. Physics, right? Nothing new. But not in Superliminal, oh no. The object that you drop will grow in size… because it’ll be the size it would have been in the distance. Conversely, if you held it and looked at the floor, the item will shrink… because that’s how small it’d be in relation to the distance it is to you.
Does that make any kind of sense?
No, I bet it doesn’t.
It is hard to encapsulate Superliminal’s core concept. Yet don’t take that as a criticism, it’s an amazing new take on puzzle gaming. Some objects, like cubes, needed to be made larger to access unreachable platforms, or a wedge-shaped object needs to enlarged to well, wedge something open. One particular room has you make an exit sign bigger by repeated perspective drops so that it can press two pressure-sensitive buttons at once.
Were that all that Superliminal has to offer, that would be enough to make this a contender with Portal. But that’s not all this weird and wonderful game has up its sleepy-time sleeves…
Physics-based puzzles are one thing, but Superliminal goes one further on the whole perspective concept, with some staggering results.
As you may notice from the picture above, you’d [hopefully] twig that you’d need to line up the picture-painted-on-another obstacle to work out what it is. Fans of Rocksteady’s Batman series will be familiar with this: it’s what the Riddler has you do with question marks as part of his “riddles”. You know which ones I mean, where you line up the body of the mark painted on one surface with the dot on another to make the complete punctuation mark.
This technique is what the French coined trompe-l’œil, which translates to “deceive the eye”. This, much like the practice of forced perspective in art, is used to trick the eye into seeing a three-dimensional object from a certain perspective. Yet whilst Batman has to deal with drawings on 3D objects, Superliminal takes it one further.
The above scene, for example, has you line up the camera to see the checkered cube. Fair enough, standard optical illusion. But once the cube is complete, it then becomes a tangible item for you to pluck out of that space to make into one of the sizes mentioned in the earlier examples.
At one of the later levels, there’s a puzzle that absolutely stumped me for a while. I won’t tell you how to solve it, but it had me scratching my head for the best part of an hour… until I remembered the literal use of perspective the game kept drilling into me. An item one side of the room, a switch the other. You can’t move the item, but you can see the item from where the switch is…
Am I being cryptic? Is this review making any sense? Have I lost my mind…?
Yes, hopefully, and I don’t think so…
The problem with a game as unique as this is that you want to recommend it, but not spoil it. Nor do you want someone telling you the solutions to something the game has worked on to tax your noggin. Thankfully, Superliminal isn’t deliberately trying to punish you. Quite the opposite, in fact.
All You Need To Do, Is Wake Up
Whilst Superliminal may be light on massive amounts of exposition, especially when things start going a bit wonky, what it does have is some powerful optimism and encouraging sentiment behind it.
Again, it’s difficult to go into without spoiling, but by the end of it the meta-narrative had me feeling very uplifted. By that I mean it’s not just congratulating you for finishing the game, but actually lays out some positive and inspiring words to carry over into real life too.
Which, annoyingly, makes it all the harder to criticise a game that’s being nice to you. It feels like kicking a sad-eyed puppy, because it only wants to please you and I feel like a right bastard for being mean to it.
Luckily, there isn’t much to complain about with Superliminal. If I had to, and sadly I do, the only two niggles are somewhat linked: it’s a surprisingly short game, and if you’ve figured it out once, why would you go through it again?
Bar several secrets and collectables, not to mention emptying every fire extinguisher for a trophy/achievement, there’s no need to go back once you know the answer to a puzzle. It’s why Portal 2 loses its momentum if you play co op with someone new when you’ve already completed it. You don’t want to be impatient, but you also don’t want to be that guy and solve everything.
Yet… I can see me going back to it, even though I have finished the game. Not immediately, but I can see me picking it up every now and then just to mess about with some of the puzzles in different ways, or to find the secret nook and crannies I’ve obviously missed.
Have You Ever Had A Dream… That You Seemed So Sure It Was Real…?
Longevity and replayability aside, Superliminal is getting an absolutely glowing recommendation from me.
Full of all the wit and charm we’ve seen grow in games like Thomas Was Alone, as well as Valve’s masterpiece, Superliminal is another to add to that list. Combined with a fantastically frustrating new take on puzzles with perspective, it’s truly a game that needs to be played to be believed. Even the loading screens are chuckle-inducing, as you can see above.
It deserves to the coveted “Games are Art” status because this is a work of art. Not only that, it uses art practices and techniques to replicate and expand on those processes in game, resulting in a concept that someone like me would never have conceived.
A truly one-of-a-kind take on first person puzzle games, Superliminal may not be the longest game on the market. But what it lacks in length it makes up for in ingenuity.
Superliminal is available now on PlayStation 4 (reviewed on), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Developer: Pillow Castle
Publisher: Pillow Castle
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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